Anthills into mountains

Peter Seebach ([ into mountains] Freelance writer 7 January 2004

Abstract: Tired of having your technology problems solved by squashing your particular complaint into a pre-defined, generically generated problem template? In this installment, the cranky columnist, Peter Seebach, explains why form letters work, or rather, why they don't work.

Let me start by saying that form letters are the scourge of the seven seas.

Once upon a time, I had an account on Yahoo! which I canceled (a long time ago) in disgust about their policy of sometimes sending unsolicited e-mail. Recently, I got a promotional mailing from them. I looked at my logs and found that the mailing was sent not to the old account, but to a new one. Why? Turns out I created a dummy account for access to files, then made sure all mailing preferences were turned off and tried to close it.

Unfortunately, the close didn't take; for whatever reason, they left the account open and somehow came to conclude that it wanted spam. What makes this funny is a paragraph from the first promotional mailing I got from them:

You received this email because the information for the account nospamever_anthills indicates that Yahoo! may contact you about building Web sites for personal or professional use.

Actually, that's been edited. The second word in the account name wasn't "anthills."

Okay, something got screwed up. Maybe they changed the preferences on the account, maybe they failed to close it. I was a little annoyed, though, because I thought this was my old account (which had been closed for over a year). No big deal. I'll send in a complaint, it'll get fixed. Or will it?

What actually happened was that I received a form letter saying the account which sent me the message that I complained about was not a Yahoo! customer, so I needed to complain to the originating ISP. That's because their spam abuse mailbox is run by people who have a small set of form letters and a strong incentive to use them. My complaints continued to get form responses until they decided they were sick of trying to make me go away and just stopped answering my queries.

A while later, I got another spam to the same account, advertising Yahoo!'s new partnership with SBC. Once again, the mail was from Yahoo! directly -- the originating mail server was in the "" domain. This time, the letter I got back said this:

SBC and Yahoo! are committed to providing fast, efficient support for our customers. Since your request pertains to SBC Yahoo!, you will need to visit the online SBC Yahoo! Help Center at:

Of course, my request didn't have anything to do with SBC Yahoo!. It was just that the string "SBC" occurred in it. I sent back a couple of corrections and, you guessed it, each time I got the same form letter.

Eventually, I got an explanation that I needed to change my communication preferences. Now, remember, to the best of my knowledge, the account in question has been closed. I explained this fact. Nothing happens. They stop responding; no further feedback is offered.

After a bit more work, I finally got a real number to call. Except that the first time I called the number, I got re-routed to Prodigy Internet support. (I guess they have a common call center.) The time after that, I made it. I got to talk to someone!

Their response?

You know already, don't you? I need to log in and change my settings. They think the account is still open. No, they won't close it for me. I can ask them to remove my personal data from their records, but they won't do it because it's against policy to honor such a request unless it's done by logging in and "deactivating the account." Of course I don't know the password for this account which I barely remember creating. What if I don't have the password? Well, if I'm willing to confirm my personal data, they'll send me a new password.

Luckily for me, the personal data used to open the account was my normal personal data with no special tags to track where they sold it, so I could remember it and get them to do the magic account dance.

On a side note, they asserted quite specifically that without that personal data, you have absolutely no way to shut an account down or stop mailings to it . So, if your friend Bob sets up an account on Yahoo as a prank, with bogus personal information, a password of random letters, and your e-mail address, they will do nothing . I asked a few people about this. That's the policy -- if you can't log into the account, if you aren't the person whose contact information was used to create it, you cannot stop mail to it from forwarding to you. Ever. Nothing that you can do will tell them this account does not belong to the person who registered with your service. It's like Nadine, all over again. (See Nadine sidebar.)

Who is Nadine?

The story of Nadine -- not her real name -- is an account of what happened after an Internet user accidentally gave a wrong e-mail address when she visited a Web page. Compiled by Michael Rathbun, this story details how a badly managed e-mail list can take a mistake and perpetuate it, practically forever (in Internet time). It is a story about how Internet e-mail lists can go horribly wrong.

Anyway, my story has mostly happy ending. But what happened? Why did it take me four hours of work to get an answer? Why would I never have gotten an answer if I hadn't been a member of the media, able to get through one of the voicemail systems to real people?

Square peg, round hole

The difficulty is that form letters create a big incentive to treat a problem as the most similar problem for which you have a form letter. Keywords may be in use -- I was never able to get anyone to say whether or not the initial responses are generated by humans. The fact is though, if you have employees who have quotas to make (or whom you don't trust to actually think), the easiest way to resolve a question quickly is to send a form letter.

This means that you get a letter which bears only a superficial resemblance to what you say. And this isn't just Yahoo!, it's everybody. Phone systems do the same thing; they almost never include an option for "if your problem is not one of the above"; it's pretty unusual for me to find that my problem is one of the above. If I had a normal problem, I would have solved it already.

Runaround, runaround, I run around

Experian spammed me. I complained. They said "here's where to write." I wrote. They said "call this number." Why? Because neither department wants to deal with this concern. They don't care; they don't want to care. The easiest way to handle this is, at any given point, to disclaim responsibility. Is anyone responsible for dealing with this? Maybe, but they don't have e-mail, a phone, or a mail stop.

This is a popular variant on the form letter game. Once again, the goal is to make the problem go away as quickly as possible (and you thought the goal was to solve your problem). When I write to the support staff for Roxio, who have been sending me spam for close to a year now, I get a totally non-informative form letter saying my request has been received. Where it was received, I don't know because I never get any followup. A month or so later, I do get more spam, so I know they're still there, but they already fulfilled their requirements -- they told me that my request is very important to them -- and that means they're done. Not that they read my complaint, not that they responded to my request, but that they did generate a response. Their responsibility to me has been completed.

Either way, directing people somewhere else or telling them you'll respond later, the name of the game is to try to outwait the customer. If the customer loses hope and interest, the customer goes away and you're finished. This is where members of the media have an unfair advantage. People who can write about a company tend to get better treatment. What this indicates is that companies can fix problems, but don't care to.

Often, it's just a question of priorities. Tech Central Station, which has been spamming me for a long time, ignored e-mail and voicemail messages. When I finally did speak to someone, he said he had no way of knowing why they were sending me mail, but that if I forwarded my address to him, he'd make the guy who actually runs the list make the e-mail stop. No, I can't talk to the guy who runs the list. No, I can't ask any more questions. They don't have time for that -- they're too busy doing something important (for instance, harvesting more addresses to spam). That might not be the reason, but since they won't tell me why (and since my proposed reason fits quite well into my own form template), let's just assume that this is their problem.

This week's action item: Pick a company which is sending you e-mail that you don't want. Try to get a straight answer from them and try to get them to stop. Good luck. Let me know how you fare.


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Some of Peter Seebach's problems are unique to him, which is why the form-letter approach to customer-service problem solving wastes a lot of his valuable time. If you're an individual that'd like to talk about being treated as a faceless, nameless generic problem, you can reach him at [] (Please. No form letters.)